Inaugural Mandela Prize winner appeals for Syrian higher education funding

On eve of second awards announcement, Portugal's former president Jorge Sampaio says Syria can only be rebuilt if its young are properly educated

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The inaugural co-winner of the Nelson Mandela Prize has appealed for funds to help Syrian youths receive university education and prevent a “lost generation” of graduates.

Jorge Sampaio, 80, the former president of Portugal who was one of the two recipients of the prize in 2015, believes that Syria can only be rebuilt if its youths are properly educated.

After six years of civil war, much of Syria’s university system is no longer functioning. There are 35,000 refugee students who are not receiving tuition but who could make a significant difference to Syria’s future when peace returns, Mr Sampaio said on the eve of the second Mandela Prize ceremony.

The prize is awarded five yearly to two recipients - a man and a woman - for services to humanity.

“Syria is a very important country in the Middle East but the fighting means there is a real danger for a lost generation of educated children and you cannot afford to lose a whole generation,” Mr Sampaio said from Portugal.

“If you don’t pay attention to higher education in an emergency, then when you want to reconstruct these countries you will not have a population with a higher education who can do the most to help.”

Research has shown that private and social returns of tertiary education in developing countries is 16 per cent compared with 12 per cent in high-income countries.

Mr Sampaio founded the Global Platform for Syrian Students in 2014, which has since awarded 550 scholarships annually.

In Portugal, 45 Syrian students have resumed their university studies under the programme that is supported by the Council of Europe and the Arab League.

In the coming months, Mr Sampaio, who led Portugal for a decade from 1996, is trying to raise funds for refugee students from Syria and 37 conflict-stricken countries.

“It always comes down to money,” he said. “You have to support efforts to provide academic opportunities for students caught in conflict.

"I have no limits on how much cash we will take, anything from $1 to $1 million. We hope to help one million students but the sky is no limit.”

Mr Sampaio said that Covid-19 was creating even more uncertainty.

“Everything is changing and we don’t know exactly how," he said.

"We are living in a great moment of change. It is clear that we need a lot of experts to respond to various threats in our society.”

Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, Chairman of the Global Platform for Syrian Students. Courtesy The Global Platform for Syrian Students
Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, Chairman of the Global Platform for Syrian Students. Courtesy The Global Platform for Syrian Students

Mr Sampaio, who was in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings of 2011, said the key to resolving the conflicts in Syria and the region was a lasting settlement between Palestine and Israel.

“If you don’t settle the Israeli-Arab situation, with Palestine at the core of the problem, it’s very difficult to end this confrontation," he said.

“All the efforts through the years never succeed because no one wants to give in to a plan.

"I am very worried and there have been many missed opportunities. Now it’s much more radical and difficult.”

Formally named the UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize, the award recognises the achievements of those who dedicate their lives to the service of humanity.

Mr Sampaio was honoured in 2015 for his promotion of human rights and leadership in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in Portugal.

His co-laureate, ophthalmologist Dr Helena Ndume of Namibia, was recognised for her life’s work in treating blindness and eye-related illnesses in the developing world.

Mr Sampaio said the world now needed great leadership to fight the Covid-19 “darkness”.

“If you don’t find a global approach to this problem, we will be in real difficulties,” he said.

“There are so many challenges that you really need strong leadership at all levels. Leaders like Nelson Mandela are an extremely good example.”

The President of the UN General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, will announce the 2020 prize recipients on Friday and they will be recognised at a virtual meeting on July 20.

On Saturday, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, will make the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.

In his speech, entitled Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era,  he is expected to take direct aim at the severe and systemic forms of inequality that are being exposed and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the first time, the annual lecture will be made online, with Mr Guterres joined by other speakers in South Africa, including President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He will also take questions from South African youths.